When your ideals are shown up as wishful thinking, or when your ideology fails the test of reality, it hurts. Today this is happening a lot. Doug Saunders wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail on June 21 admitting that it’s hard to believe in promoting democracy anymore. I agree. Democracy is failing to yield political solutions to the climate crisis. We may simply die instead of facing facts. Moreover, the failure of the Arab Spring is chastening to everyone who expected the dumping of dictators to release an innate human tendency for good governance. Indeed, some people are concluding that it is a disservice to help people in other countries oust their dictators, for they might be better off accepting tyranny than resisting it.
Not only is democratic ideology crumbling, but every halo is tarnishing. Apparently Obama is not Martin Luther King. Aung San Suu Kyi is now a politician who will not risk losing Buddhist votes by defending human rights for the Rohingya Muslims. Gorbachev favors the restoration of Crimea to Russia, attributing it to a nonviolent movement by the people. And indeed, if Kosovo was liberated legitimately, how is Crimea different? Ouch!
But perhaps it is the democrats’ turn to be chastened, for the other big ideologies of the twentieth century have also collapsed, and the left has wasted no sympathy on those disillusioned ex-believers. Marxists were proved wrong twenty years ago when every Communist country except North Korea and Cuba abandoned a command economy in favor of a free market. The Chicago school of economics was proved wrong when the recession showed the dangers of deregulating banks. Now Thomas Piketty has even proved capitalism wrong in its assumption that a free market will eventually smooth out class inequalities through the inevitable trickling down of wealth. Nationalists have been proved wrong by the globalization of problems and identities, which no longer fit a model of sovereign nation states. When churches are run by pedophiles and pharmaceutical companies and hospitals make sick people sicker, what is left to believe in?
Saunders is bold in acknowledging the collapse of ideology and his uncertain responses. He cites another disillusioned democrat, Mark Lilla, who does seem to settle for the most passive response—giving up trying. Instead, Saunders simply admits that democracy will take longer than we had supposed, and that we must be patient,for it will be worth it. Still, he does not celebrate this sombre insight, this cooling of ideology.
Here’s another way to see it. Karl Popper showed that progress toward the truth comes, not by proving what is so, but by successively disproving what is false. We should defend our ideas fiercely, for only vigorous battles test them. But then, when a theory proves flawed,we must abandon it. That hurts, but clearing away dead ideologies is actually progress; it creates space for new theories. This clearing away is the current condition of our political lives. But look! A few ideas about democracy have not been falsified yet. They are more visible now, so we can see how to revise our system of governance and our economy. Here in the clearing, let’s celebrate!